Running and Endurance Riding

You may recall that one of my goals was to start running more seriously and to complete a Ride & Tie with my sister.  You may also recall that I am most certainly NOT a runner.  I was that girl who made excuses to miss gym class in school.  I NEVER ran for exercise in my life until last winter, when Ink inspired me to start running so I could get off and help her through hills at endurance rides.  Then I injured my IT band and stopped running for a while.  I restarted that running goal this winter.

It was very helpful that my sister, who is a good runner, moved down here this winter, and has motivated me to jog with her.  It has also been motivating to set an actual race date to be ready for.  I didn’t train as much as I should have, but I did better than I would have without any goals or sister pressure.

I set a series of increasing competition goals:  start with a 4.2 mile trail run, then a 6.2 mile (10k) trail run, then a ride & tie (unknown distance as of yet, thinking maybe 20 miles).

The thing about trail running is that it is MUCH harder than road running.  I enjoy it much more dislike it much less than road running, and I find it more relevant to my endurance riding goals.  I’m not sure I can say that I actually LIKE running at all. I do really like how I feel after:  both the “runner’s high” and the sense of accomplishment.  In a more long term sense, I’m also enjoying being more fit.

Last weekend was the 6.2 mile trail run.  I came into this run never having run more than 5 miles (which was only once, the weekend before the race, I usually only run 3.5 miles) in my entire life.  I expected it to be really difficult.  It was a hilly course that had other more serious runners commenting on the difficulty.  Surprise – I was totally fine!

I realize that 6.2 miles is really no big deal at all for actual runners.  It was kind of a big deal to me.  Though now that it has been accomplished, I’m looking back on it as not such a big deal after all.

I kept finding myself thinking about the paralells of trail running and endurance riding.  I have gained a lot of new perspectives and insights into what my horses go through for me.  I thought I’d share some here.  Any able bodied endurance rider would do well to take on a similar physical goal themselves, not just to become more fit to help your horse, but to gain insights and appreciation for what our equines do for us.  They often make it seem easy, but let me tell you, it is not!

Here is the biggest one.  Running uphill is HARD.  I mean really, really hard.  Even slight inclines that go on for a long time.  Places I’ve ridden that I though were pretty flat terrain are most certainly NOT flat at all on foot.  Exhausting!  Your legs get weak, you can’t get enough oxygen, your heart is pounding, you feel like you might keel over dead any minute…  Okay, maybe its just me, but looking around at these hilly trail runs and seeing people’s hopeless expressions or those doubled over on the side of the trail half way up a hill, I’m fairly sure many others agree.

My definition of a hill has been expanded.  I used to only acknowledge hills that were steep and obvious.  Nope.  Those sneaky gentle hills are a beast too.  My horses never complain about those long gradual slopes, but they most certainly are working harder on such terrain.

This leads me to my biggest endurance strategy revelation (well, not really new info, but confirms old thoughts):  Running up hills is a waste of energy, and ultimately of time as well (unless you are a super athlete who can run up hills and still not run out of gas later).  I walked up all of the bigger hills on my races.  People would pass me, jogging with a painful look on their faces, panting, getting steadily slower as they went.  I power walked up.  We would reach the top and then I would pass them, jogging briskly down hill and picking up speed on the flat areas.  Meanwhile, the uphill runners were still jogging slowly because they were so damn exhausted from running up the last hill.  (again, this does not include the top finishers, who are crazy fit and mega runners, this is for us mere mortals, the average mid pack people)  This leap frogging would continue over a few hills.  Each time I would get further ahead until I left them in the dust about 2/3 through the race.  My finishing time is notably faster than the mid pack uphill runners, despite the fact that I walked up each hill.  I finished each race feeling great and recovered within a couple minutes, with the feeling that I could go back out and do more.  “Fit to continue.”  Bingo.

Hmmm.  See how this applies to endurance riding?  At endurance rides I sometimes see horses running up hills, only to stop and walk at the top, or to pass them in a mile, or see them in the next vet check with a pulse hanging or worse.  The horse is lathered in sweat, flanks heaving rapidly, fatigue in his eyes.  My horse is just cruising along still, having walked up that hill and then resumed her all day trot.  Yep.  Smart pacing is critical.  Sometimes slower is faster for the average athlete, if you’re not on a superstar racing for top ten.

I mentioned jogging down hill.  We are taught to walk down all hills with horses, to save their legs.  True, and I do.  However, I am now pondering that.  Moxie is a really fast downhill walker, sometimes does a bit of stepping pace as she shuffles downhill.  It does not appear that she stresses her legs any more doing this than slow walking.  She has good footing and doesn’t stumble.  I’ve heard that a lot of gaited horses are that way – very efficient and fast down hill.  I’ve been working on teaching her to slow down, but later in her career I could see this as a strong point to make up time.  Perhaps the key is staying balanced and collected going downhill, and perhaps add some speed on a seasoned horse whose legs have been thoroughly conditioned and toughened?  I personally am a really strong downhill runner compared to others, I am surprisingly agile and never stumble, I’m able to use my core to stablize my knees to minimize concussion.  Perhaps there are horses out there who can go faster downhill safely also without tearing up their legs?  I think Moxie may be one of them.  Thoughts?

My next insight is just how hard slanted trails are on legs.  You know that type:  the hill side trail is cut at a slight angle to help with water run off, such that your right foot is a bit lower than your left foot.  Whew.  I’ve read about this being a problem at certain endurance rides, but I didn’t appreciate how much more knee pain one experiences on trails like this until I ran on one.  I’m not sure we can really DO much about it, but awareness is good, perhaps slowing down or avoiding courses like that on young horses or those prone to leg issues…?

Tapering / rest before:  I’ve always followed the advice of the last hard ride is 2 weeks prior to the endurance ride, then moderate to easy rides as you get closer, and a few days off, with a light tack ride the day before.  When I run two days in a row, I feel so exhausted and weak the second day, and there is a mental component that makes it really not fun.  Perhaps as I get more fit I can run multiple days in a row, but for now I totally agree that starting well rested is critical!  I don’t need the two full weeks rest prep like my horses, just a few days of no running before a race seems adequate.  I still get general exercise, but no running for a couple days prior.  Horses hold fitness longer than humans, so they can rest longer.  The concept is the same though.

Electrolytes:  Yes, please!  It isn’t hot out here in Kentucky yet, in fact it was 37 degrees at the start of the second race.  Brrr.  However, I took electrolytes (Salt Sticks) before and after the most recent race (6.2 miles).  I had not taken any at the first race (4.2 miles).  Guess which race I was sore during and after?  Yep, you know it.  The shorter race without lytes.  Even in the cooler weather my body very much appreciated the electrolytes.  I had absolutely zero muscle soreness after the longer race with lytes.  Everyone is different, but I suspect I am like those horses who do better with more lytes.  It really does make a noticeable difference.

Rump rugs:  I mentioned that it was 37 degrees at the start of the recent race.  Knowing that I have a history of high IT band issues and tight hips, especially on cold training runs, I layered up to keep that area warm and happy.  I wore compression bicycling underwear, regular running tights, and shorts on top.  Triple layer over my hips.  Happy hips.  My hips stayed much looser and had no pain, tightness or cramping.  I didn’t feel overheated either, as the rest of my body just had thin layers.  Translation to endurance riding:  if your horse has any history of hindquarter tightness or cramps, the rump rug might really make a difference in cool weather.

I am most certainly not an experienced runner by any means, but I thought it could be interesting to share some of my horse related insights with any non-runners out there.  Who knows, perhaps someone will be inspired and give it a try too!  Your horse will thank you.  And believe you me, you’ll thank your horse more than ever before after getting a taste of what they do for us!

Are there any other runner/riders out there?  Any additional thoughts or insights?

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